At the end of June, I travelled to the Poitou-Charentes region on the French Atlantic coast. I can never get tired of France: of its charming towns and stunning landscape, its amazing food and wine. And so I fell in love with Ile de Ré, a laid-back island that is full of charm and beauty. Here are 6 reasons to love Ile de Ré that will make you want to visit the island right away!
The first time I travelled to the Charente-Maritime region was in summer 2016, as part of my road trip from London to Bilbao. My husband and I took the ferry to Normandy, then drove through Brittany and alongside the Atlantic coast, where we stopped in La Rochelle for a night. We didn’t have time to stay longer to visit the four islands which make the region famous: Ile de Ré, Ile d’Oléron, Ile d’Aix and Ile Madame. Luckily my job took me back this year!
My trip started in La Rochelle, the archetypal town of the French Atlantic coast, renowned for its prestigious historical architecture and vibrant port. I also visited Rochefort, for a tour of the Hermione frigate and a rope-climbing experience up ship masts as tall as 27 metres (find out more at Accro-Mâts); Marais Poitevin, where I kayaked for hours with local expert Jean-Michel Niobé, who is preparing for a solo-kayaking trip around the world; Île d’Aix, a wild and beautiful car-free island with sandy beaches, marshes, forests and cliffs that are best explored by bicycle.
It was a fantastic trip and I loved each destination and every activity. Ultimately, it was Île de Ré I fell in love with and that I wish I never had to leave.
6 Reasons To Love Île de Ré
Île de Ré is an understated and relaxed island of 30km by 5km, nowadays connected to the mainland by a modern bridge. It is one of the favourite tourist destinations of the French in summer – it is easy to see why – so I recommend visiting in low season (early / late summer is also good) to avoid big crowds of tourists and higher prices.
As a holiday destination, it has a lot to offer: 25km of sand dunes; 100km of rural and flat cycle paths; 400 hectares of forests. Hire a bicycle and immerse yourself in the island life!
1. The View from Le Phare des Baleines
My visit to Ile de Ré started with a tour of Le Phare des Baleines, a picturesque lighthouse located at Saint Clément, on the western tip of the island. It is called so, because once upon a time you could spot whales from the top.
The 57-metre high lighthouse was built in 1849 to replace the old lighthouse from 1682. Both buildings are still standing today. The old one is now home to a museum.
The newer lighthouse is open to the public all year round. It’s definitely worth a visit and taking the 257 steps up to the top to enjoy spectacular views of the ocean and the vast Atlantic horizon.
2. Oyster tasting at L’Huitriere de Ré
From the lighthouse, we drove south for about 10-15 minutes to an oyster farm: L’Huitrière de Ré. Ile de Ré offers the perfect environment for oyster farming, which is an integral part of the maritime culture of the island.
Farm owner Brigitte Berthelot gave us an insightful presentation on how oysters grow at sea and how they are farmed.
It was fascinating to learn about the different species available on Île de Ré (Fines, Fines de Claires and Spéciales). I learnt that oysters spend the first two and a half years of their lives breeding in the sheltered areas of Pertuis Breton, then they are transferred to the south of the island. The oysters are placed back in the sea, but in a more exposed area where their shells will harden over 6 months, before being taken out and packaged.
The majority of oysters produced and refined by L’Huitrière de Ré every year – a hundred tons – are sold during the month of December to the best restaurants in Paris, as it is tradition in France to eat oysters on Christmas day.
There’s no better place to eat oysters than in France and directly from a farm that grows them. These osyters were delicious, fresh and full of flavours, without any added seasoning.
3. Lunch at La Cabane du Fier
After our taster of oyster we drove to La Cabane du Fier for lunch in a typical Île de Ré oyster shack. The bistrot by Christophe Frigiere serves traditional island dishes and daily-changing seafood specials. I loved sitting in the terrace overlooking the bay of Fier d’Ars.
We started our lunch with a charcuterie and cheese platter and a glass of local Chardonnay wine. For our main courses we ordered fish dishes from the region, such as Moules Frites (mussels and fries) and Ragoût de seiche avec sauce mouclade (cuttlefish ragout with spicy mouclade sauce).
Upon recommendation of our server, I ordered the Chaudree a la Charentaise, a soup of white fish, potatoes, mushrooms, courgettes and a lot of butter and rosemary. This dish is typical of Charente-Maritime and it was delicious (you will want to clean up the plate with the baguette bread!).
4. Wind Surfing and Paddle Boarding at La Couarde
After lunch we drove further south to beach of La-Couarde-sur-Mer, a long stretch of white sandy beach.
We did our stand up paddle-boarding lesson at La Couarde Sailing School where you can learn different water sports with surfing champion Antoine Albeau.
I was excited to try paddle-boarding again, but the water was choppy that afternoon so I knew it was going to be tough.
I usually have a good balance and I can stand up on a board easily. When the ocean currents and winds are strong, it’s not so easy anymore. but it’s more fun and challenging!
After an afternoon spent at the beach, we drove across the island to Saint-Martin-de-Ré, our final destination for the day. Saint-Martin-de-Ré is a pretty port town with a bustling harbour, an ancient citadel and forts.
The quay is the centre of activities in Sain-Martin-de-Ré, especially in the afternoons and evenings. I checked into Hotel Les Colonnes in a room overlooking the harbour and immediately left again to go for a stroll around the town.
First stop: La Martinière on the quay for the best ice cream on the island!
There are several lanes starting from the quay and going into the town, away from the sea. It’s easy to get lost, as the streets look alike with their picturesque white houses with blue and green shutters, the cobbles and the pastel-coloured hollyhock flowers everywhere.
There are many independent shops selling local artefacts, clothes, bags and island food delicacies.
Moving back towards the harbour and the sea, you will find the main attraction of Saint-Martin-de-Ré: the star-shaped fortifications built by France’s great military engineer Vauban in the late 17th century. They are part of UNESCO world heritage sites since 2008. Watch the sunset from the ramparts or take a walk along the fortifications, all the way to the little town beach, Plage de la Cible.
We had dinner at Côté Jardin, a restaurant close by to the port with a pretty outdoor patio covered by a roof of vine leaves.
6. The Poitou Donkeys
I couldn’t write about Île de Ré without mentioning the island’s most popular attractions: the donkeys in striped pyjamas. In the past, the donkeys were used to work in the salt farms and had cotton leggings to protect their legs from mosquitos. Nowadays the pyjamas are not used anymore, but you can still see many donkeys around the island.
The Poitou donkeys are a unique breed with larger heads, ears and legs than the average donkeys with a coat of long, furry hair. I saw a lot of them on my morning run from St-Martin-de-Ré to La Flotte and I can tell you they are unbelievably cute.
My time in Ile de Ré was both exciting and relaxing: I loved how lively St-Martin-de-Ré was, but also loved the peacefulness and slow pace of life in the rest of the island. Ile de Ré is my dream destination for a long summer holiday and I can’t wait to return.
A bit of practical information to plan your holiday to Ile de Ré: you can fly to La Rochelle from London Stansted, Gatwick and several other UK airports. You will need to hire a car to get to the island: I recommend Hertz Grand Ouest (45 Avenue du Général de Gaulle, 17000 La Rochelle) and Avis (166 Boulevard Joffre, 17000 La Rochelle). I stayed at Hotel Les Colonnes, a lovely 2-star hotel exceptionally located in Saint-Martin-de-Ré’s fortified harbour. Rates start at €99 per room per night.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of the tourism board of Charente-Maritime. All opinions are my own.